South London may have been covered in fog for most of the past week, but at Charlton Athletic it is storm clouds that are blocking out the sun this Christmas. Les Reed's eight games in charge since replacing Iain Dowie have produced six defeats, and his side now lie second bottom of the table and sinking fast.
Yesterday's win lifted Middlesbrough to 14th, and their manager, Gareth Southgate, will be grateful to the fixture list for a game against opposition in such desperate straits.
As fans demonstrated outside the Valley after Tuesday's Carling Cup embarrassment against Wycombe Wanderers, Reed talked late into the night with the club hierarchy, but he maintains he had no intention of quitting. None the less it is easy in the wake of yesterday's defeat to imagine Peter Varney, the club's chief executive, and Richard Murray, the chairman, for all their public expressions of support, desperately trying to press on their manager a revolver along with the traditional Christmas bottle of Scotch.
"We've lost the game through basic errors," Reed said. "Things that shouldn't happen did and that gave us a mountain to climb. Whatever else happened with regard to the system and the team shape, if you make those kind of errors you're going to lose."
The system will be questioned, as Reed adopted what he generously called a 3-5-2, with Bryan Hughes dropping off Darren Bent, but what most people saw as a 5-4-1. That sounds unambitious, and the truth was even worse: the two full-backs, Osei Sankofo and Djimi Traoré, are far from wing-backs, while the midfield was shored up by the defensive muscle of Radostin Kishishev and Amdy Faye.
"We wanted to flood the midfield and counterattack, and get players running from midfield," Reed explained. "The defensive aspect of that worked quite well for 20 minutes, but we didn't use possession well enough."
To find Reed opting for a belt-and-braces approach was perhaps not surprising, but this was belt, braces, a length of string and a generous helping of Super Glue. Reed had called for his side to pick up seven points from the four games over Christmas, but the impression was definitely that he aspired to no more than one yesterday, and even that proved far beyond them.
Charlton were set up to absorb a pounding, but the problem with being a punchbag is that you keep getting hit, and, to no one's great surprise, they succumbed just before the half-hour. James Morrison reacted smartly to Mark Viduka's pass to play in Aiyegbeni Yakubu, and the Nigerian jinked past Scott Carson to roll in his sixth of the season. "We conceded when we had control of the ball and control of the game, with players in advanced positions," Reed explained.
Viduka was impressive, and Southgate indicated he will be offered a new contract. "I'd love him to stay here and be part of future," he said. "He's a tremendous player, a leader for us. He's had a period out injured and we haven't got round to talking to him. The performances he's putting in are doing his talking for him."
Middlesbrough may not pack the punch of George Foreman in his prime, but then Charlton, timorous and leaden-footed, are certainly not Muhammad Ali either, and the implausible thought that they may have been about to spring off the ropes to down their opponents in a blizzard of jabs vanished seven minutes after half-time as Julio Arca capped an excellent performance in an unfamiliar central role by scoring his first goal for Middlesbrough.
"We know how comfortable he is in possession," Southgate said. "Sometimes you need somebody in the middle of the park who puts his foot on the ball and sees a pass."
Nobody moved to close down Arca at the edge of the box as a corner was half-cleared, and even though his first-time shot was not exactly blistering, it was enough to bowl Hughes off his feet on the line as he made an ineffectual attempt to block. "We should have had a player at the edge of the box," Reed admitted, "but he wasn't there."
Only at two down came the introduction of a second forward in Marcus Bent, which as recovery missions go was a bit like handing an umbrella to one of Noah's neighbours as the floodwaters lapped around his neck. Its effect on the game was nil, and Boro's crowd could revel in a victory of almost embarrassing ease.
"We didn't want to go gung-ho," Reed said, which was like Genghis Khan worrying about being considered effeminate. He was probably grateful Charlton's travelling support numbered under 150; the fewer who saw this débâcle, the easier it will be to forget it.
Hosanna in excelsis? Not this year, not at the Valley: this is Charlton in a crisis.Reuse content